Belfort: Designer Diaries, part 4: The Printers


In our final instalment of “Belfort: From Inspiration to Publication” we meet with Richard Lee of Panda Manufacturing, the Canadian company that handled the manufacturing aspects of Belfort for Tasty Minstrel Games. Panda has been setting the standard for having games manufactured in China in recent years. Belfort is a solid example of the work they can do.

Jay: Hi Richard! Good to speak with you again. Can you tell us what services Panda offers to publishers?

Richard (left), Michael Lee (right) and Belfort (middle)!

Richard: Hey Jay! Hi Sen! Well, Panda offers full manufacturing, sourcing, quality control, testing, and shipping services to game publishers all around the world. Our primary printing and assembly factory is located in Shenzhen, but we source components from all over China.

Sen: How did you find yourselves in this role?

Richard: My brother, Michael, and I have always been avid gamers and fans of the gaming industry. In 2007, Michael partnered up with our primary printing facility in China that specialized in commercial printing (books, magazines, packaging). With the help of some industry experts, he discovered that it was possible to create high quality board games in China that could match the quality of German-produced games. After all, the Chinese printers had access to the same materials and machinery as the Germans. It was simply a matter of workmanship, expertise, and experience.

Not long afterwards, he started offering the printing services to board game publishers and attended major gaming conventions to promote Panda Game Manufacturing.

Jay: So, are you hardcore gamers or game designers yourself?

Richard: We have been gamers for as long as we can remember and have always enjoyed tinkering with games and creating house rules. While we wouldn’t consider ourselves game designers at the moment, we do have some rough designs that we have worked on over the last few years. We look forward to the day when we will be able to bring one of our own games to market.

Sen: Tasty Minstrel didn’t use Panda for their first couple of games and their early woes with moisture are, by now, a cautionary tale in the board game publishing world. How does Panda Manufacturing ensure that this doesn’t happen?

Richard: Printed components made in China can be subject to very humid conditions, which can lead to warped components or even worse – mouldy components! Panda’s manufacturing process places a strong emphasis on ensuring that all components are properly dried in a specially-created climate control room. Component moisture levels are consistently monitored and brought down to American and European levels.

Jay: Seriously? That’s really interesting! But why does it take about 30 days to fully manufacture a game?

The factory in China...making games!

Richard: Actually, it takes more than 30 days to manufacture a game. Typically, after a publisher uploads their graphic files to our FTP site, we need 2 – 4 weeks in the pre-press and sample production stage to ensure that files are print-ready and that custom components samples are made properly before we kick off full production. In fact, we don’t start full production until our clients approve a proofs and materials package that contains full-colour proofs, a mock-up of the game, and sample materials and components. After we start full production, the average game takes 45 days to complete. Of course, this depends on the complexity of the project as well as the total quantity of the order.

Sen: So it’s not as simple as pressing ‘Print’ huh? Got it! Take us through some of the steps that Belfort went through to get through production.

Richard: There are many steps to producing a board game but here are some of the most important steps along the way:

· Creation of printing plates
· Colour matching
· Printing
· Creation of die-cuts
· Component sourcing
· Component quality control checks
· Assembly of games
· Packing in cartons & Palletization

Jay: What was the most difficult aspect of production for Belfort?

Richard: Overall, Belfort is a fairly standard production with wooden pieces, cards, punchboards, and a game board. However, the game board is a unique pentagon shape that consists of 5 kite-shaped pieces. To ensure that the game board pieces would fit together nicely, we printed all 5 game board pieces together and then cut the board into the kite shaped pieces to ensure a proper fit. This required additional pre-press work as well as carefully calibrated die-cutting machines.

Sen: Cool, that’s pretty neat! The board is a thing of beauty! But There is no insert to hold things in Belfort – is this something that’s common? If so – why?

Boxes!

Richard: After sending the publisher the proofs and materials package, which included the “white dummy” mockup of the game, we realized that the submitted box specifications did not allow enough room for an insert. Rather than adjust the box size (which increases both production and shipping costs) or reduce the thickness of components, the publisher chose to remove the insert from the game.

For games that do not have many wooden or plastic components, it is not uncommon for them to be produced without inserts. Belfort includes 12 ziplock bags, so there is plenty of storage to keep the game organized.

Jay: Ah, that’s actually great to know! As of the writing of this interview, we haven’t received our copies of the game yet and I was wondering if it was coming with bags or not. Yay!

Sen: And how much does each copy of Belfort weigh?

Richard: The weight of 1 game of Belfort is 1.65Kg (Ed: That’s 3.64 pounds for you Imperalists)

Jay: That’s pretty hefty! If great games were determined by weight then we’d be right up there! It could have been heavier because I remember we originally wanted Befort to have custom-sculpted elf/dwarf/gnome figures but the cost was prohibitive.

Richard: Yes, plastic components are fairly expensive, especially for smaller sized print runs (anything under 5000 games). That said, some publishers really want plastic components in their games and believe they can justify a higher retail price for the game. We have actually done plastic components for some orders as low as 2000 in the past but this usually adds at least $3 or $4 more to the production costs.

Jay: But what’s actually cheaper to use as a material? Paper, wood or plastic? What are the pros and cons of each?

Richard: Generally, paper is cheaper than wood, and wood is cheaper than plastic. Cardboard tokens are fairly cheap since you can fit many of them on a single punchboard. Wooden components have low set-up costs and are faster to produce whereas plastic components require an expensive mould set-up fee but have a lower price per unit afterwards. For smaller print runs wooden bits are cheaper than plastic bits, but for large orders sometimes plastic is cheaper than wood.

An example of the die cut for a punchboard (not for Belfort though).

Punchboard tokens are great because printed images and text will show up clearly on them. However, they have the downside of being 2 dimensional. Wood and plastic are more durable and are good for custom 3-D shapes. However, if you are designing a game where the pieces must be identical, keep in mind that wood pieces are prone to higher variances between pieces.

Sen: Has there been any really expensive game bit that you’ve had to manufacture?

Richard: Panda hasn’t actually been contracted to produce any game with a single component that has been especially expensive, but terms of games that have been more expensive to produce overall, the following come to mind:

· Tales of the Arabian Nights (with a special finish on the box and a huge book of tales)
· Merchants & Marauders (with plastic ships, custom bone dice, a cardboard treasure chest, wooden bits, and just about every cardboard component you can think of)
· Eclipse (an upcoming epic space game for a Finnish publisher – Lautepelit games)

Sen: Has Panda ever manufacture anything with electronics in it?

Richard: Panda has never produced a game with an electronic component. However, we are always looking for new and interesting ways to help our customers develop games of exceptional quality. In general, when working with new factories it is important to account for additional time to allow for more thorough quality control checks. In addition, we would encourage publishers considering electronics in their games to look into CPSIA and customs regulations related to toy testing standards for electronics.

Jay: If we were to do an expansion to Belfort, what should we consider from a manufacturing perspective?

Richard: Be sure to let us know if certain components need to be color matched to previous editions. For example, some card game expansions need extremely careful color matching. Otherwise, cards would be “marked” and the game might be unplayable. Also, you may want to consider advertising the expansion right in the base game. Many larger companies put game catalogues in each of their games. Lastly, there are optimal sizes for game boxes and boards, as well as optimal quantities for card decks. We would encourage you to contact us early so we can provide more specific advice for your game and find ways to help you save on costs.

Sen: For publishers thinking about manufacturing through you, what are some of the things they should know up front regarding both Panda Manufacturing and working with a production plant in China? What are the dangers of not using someone like yourself when dealing with printers in China?

Richard: It is not easy to be a successful board game publisher. You need to have an excellent marketing and sales strategy, great customer service, talented individuals, and of course fun games! Nor is it easy to be a successful board game manufacturer in China. We need a strong network of suppliers to provide quality components for all our games, and a dedicated team on the ground to ensure that colour matching, quality control, and shipping logistics are all carefully conducted.

Our service allows our clients to focus on their core business and be relieved of manufacturing headaches by letting us handle their production. Manufacturing a board game requires many small steps, many handoffs, and cooperation across many factories and companies. While there is always a chance that things can go wrong, Panda has built a reputation for standing by its customers and working with them to resolve any issues fairly and expediently. We take great pride in producing great quality games as well as solving problems if they do arise.

Jay: Is there anything else the world needs to know about Panda Manufacturing and the Lee brothers?

Richard: Panda regularly attends major gaming conventions such as GAMA, Origins, Gencon, and Essen. Feel free to email us at sales@pandagm.com to setup a face-to-ace meeting. We would be happy to discuss your upcoming project or just hang out and chat over a casual board game!

So that concludes our Designer Diaries on Belfort! If you missed the first three, you can read them here:

Belfort Designer Diaries: Part 1, The Playtesters

Belfort Designer Diaries: Part 2, The Developer

Belfort Designer Diaries: Part 3, The Artist

If you are interested in learning more about how we came up with the ideas and how the game grew from something small into what it is now you can read this interview by Jeff Temple and watch this video we recorded.

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